What The Driverless Car Will Really Kill Is The Rail Network

As this piece from the Conversation points out, the technology really at risk from the driverless car is the long distance rail network. If we can all sit in our own little private carriage, one that goes from point to point, what’s the point of having terminii for node to node travel? Urban rail, the Tube, that’ll still work to a point because congestion. But why King’s Cross to Brum New Street by rail when the West Norwood to Solihull autonomous car will do it?

Car ownership is likely to become a thing of the past – and so could public transport

The car is set to undergo a massive transformation in the coming years, as automation gradually eliminates the need for drivers, and electric and hybrid vehicles occupy a growing share of the global market. But, in a future where autonomous cars arrive on demand to take you where you need to go, there seems little point in owning one.

The average car spends around 90% of its life parked. A shift away from privately owned vehicles towards a service – owned and run by public or private ventures – is a smart and efficient solution that’s going to revolutionise the way traffic flows through cities. But it could also have profound consequences for existing transport systems such as trains, metros and bus services.

Give up your cars

For many, cars represent independence or freedom, so you might expect some resistance to this. But on the whole, evidence suggests that people seem ready to accept the loss of car ownership, provided alternative transport goes fast and far enough.

This is clear in cities like London, where regular, comprehensive public transport options make owning a car unnecessary for many people. On average, there are 0.8 cars per household in Greater London, where the tube connects the city with 402km of rails.

But car ownership is higher in areas where transport is less reliable. For example, residents in the Great Manchester area, in northern England, own on average 1.3 cars per household with an urban rail system extending just 93km. If alternative solutions are competitive, there seems to be little opposition to abandoning car ownership.

The price of anarchy

It’s likely that autonomous cars will operate as part of a networked system. This will enable them to avoid congestion, thus reducing pollution and minimising the time people spend on the road.

This bears explaining: congestion is often caused by too many drivers all trying to take the most direct or convenient route at the same time. Only drivers who take the route early will benefit, while the rest will get caught in traffic – mathematicians call this “the price of anarchy”.

Best avoided. Antonio DiCaterina/Unsplash.FAL

Working as a system, driverless cars will be able to distribute themselves across a range of routes to prevent traffic jams and move through the city more efficiently. This kind of system should offer further benefits over time, provided useful data collected by autonomous cars is delivered to local or city authorities, that can then work to improve roads as needed.

Transport transformation

It’s not just road traffic that will be affected by these new systems. The way people move within and between cities is going to change as well – and this raises major questions about public spending on infrastructure such as railways.

In general, areas have to reach a certain level of density to make public transport economically viable – there have to be enough people using a service to make it worth running. This is easily done in big cities, but harder to achieve in small or mid-sized ones. Autonomous cars could help by giving more people a quick and convenient way of getting to or from a station.

But if people had the choice, they would probably take the same car all the way to their destination. As the capacities of autonomous car networks expand in the future, it raises big questions over the value of planned investments in fixed point-to-point transport such as trains, buses and metros. Even transport between cities could eventually be affected as the range of these networks grow.

This raises the question of whether investments in infrastructure for autonomous cars, which optimises the use of existing road infrastructure, should be considered as an alternative to significant investments in new rail infrastructure that may be rendered redundant by technology before or shortly after it’s completed.

Making a road map

It will probably be ten to 20 years before autonomous vehicles and the high-speed 5G network – which are both needed to properly address the price of anarchy – are rolled out onto public roads. How this shift takes shape will influence the way cities look and feel in the future, too. Autonomous cars have the potential to collapse travel times – and that opens up the opportunity to rethink how cities are planned.

But as the physical assets of cities change much more slowly than the digital technologies that are increasingly embedded within them, this could rapidly draw people away from those cities that do not embrace the opportunity, and towards those that do.

For citizens to benefit from the roll-out of autonomous cars, social issues must be considered in the way such networks are programmed. This means ensuring that mobility is optimised in a way that supports community cohesion – for example, by clustering homes and businesses together, and integrating other functions such as education and well-being – so that dropping the kids off at school or going to see granny becomes easier, not harder.

Autonomous cars are going to change the way people feel about car ownership. But as these new, networked autonomous services become a reality in cities across the globe, it will raise big questions over the continued funding of public transport. Now is the time to think about how cities should be planned to make the most of autonomous cars – without losing what makes them human.

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Tim AlmondJonathan Harstonjc collinsQuentin VoleBloke in North Dorset Recent comment authors
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The Mole
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The Mole

I buy the argument around trains and metros – those are fixed point to point networks. For busses however I think the situation will be more complex. Autonomous busses will probably become more widespread before autonomous cars are more than a niche (see alternative fuel supplies where this has also happened). There are efficiencies in having multiple people share a vehicle which should make them cheaper than owning a car (up to a certain number of journeys). The main reasons against public transport (other than mixing with the public) are them not being there when you want one and the… Read more »

starfish
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starfish

The issue surely is capacity vs route flexibility

Obviously not everyone is starting/stopping at the same point but people may be persuaded to do so if the bus/coach is efficient timely and cheap

It seems to me that bus/coach services are either oversubscribed or undersubscribed

There must be a capacity sweet spot…perhaps 4 or 5 seats…….?

Dodgy Geezer
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Dodgy Geezer

What The Driverless Car Will Really Kill Is The Rail Network I had envisioned software controlled driving as resulting in ‘road trains’ – long lines of vehicles all going to the same destination. This is a much more efficient use of road space, since you need no gaps between the cars. Thus, if 50 people were going from addresses in London to addresses in Birmingham they would adjust speeds to converge on each other as the M1 passed by Watford, run up to Northhampton as a train, and then separate as they came into Birmingham. They could actually connect onto… Read more »

Rhoda Klapp
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Rhoda Klapp

Point of accuracy, all congestion is caused by the other people driving too slowly.

starfish
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starfish

“90% of its life parked”

This is a nonsense statistic

I spend roughly a third of my life asleep, presumably no-one expects me to drive my car then

Another third is spent at work

So 2/3 of this 90% is entirely predictable

The point is that it is available for my personal use 100% of the time to take me more or less anywhere

No public transport system achieves that

Bloke in North Dorset
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Bloke in North Dorset

Perhaps for “passenger” rail. Even with autonomous lorries I can’t see politicians allowing them clog up intercity motorways and if there’s fewer passenger trains then there’s rail space for even more goods trains.

Quentin Vole
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Quentin Vole

I’m not convinced there’s much demand for more railfreight. There are essentially just two types today – container trains from real ports to inland ‘ports’ and bulk loads, mostly stone from quarries and ‘binliners’ taking refuse to land fill (not much coal or steel, which used to constitute the majority of this traffic) plus a bit of car plant output. I remember a discussion over dinner with the president of the US company I was working for (like me, a bit of an anorak), who couldn’t see why there was so little ‘intermodal’ traffic in the UK compared to the… Read more »

Jonathan Harston
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Jonathan Harston

There are several issues here. Yes, this is the logical conclusion of my argument that our local HS2 station should be in the city centre, not on the outskirts. If I’m going to have to get a bus into town, then another bus or shuttle train from town to the HS2 station, then, I bloody well may as well just get the train straight from town direct to London instead of messing about changing and changing again to get to the HS2 station. This is the logical extension, if I have the option to walk out of my house and… Read more »

jc collins
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jc collins

Got a point there. I’m a tradesman, working in LOTS of trades, with buttloads of tools. With a truck/lorry/panel van I can carry my tools. And materials. A friend who works as a setbuilder in the NYC theater market tells me he uses the subway (Underground/Tube) and brings his tools to and fro with himself in a dolly mounted toolbox of his own devising. 3 foot wide by 2 foot deep by 5 foot tall, weighs about 325 pounds. (1M x .7M x 1.5 M 150 KG). Every day.

Jonathan Harston
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Jonathan Harston

If your situation it’s worth the investment to buy a van. With my work it’ll be sometimes half a dozen PCs, sometimes half a dozen routers, 90%+ just my toolbox, that one time I had to drop the seats down and squeeze my car tools into the footwell to make space. For people like me it’s just not economically sensible to invest in a van, and I don’t picture myself as Norville Rodgers.

Tim Almond
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Tim Almond

I think it’s going to be the work from home/remote work thing that’s going to get it first. Lots of people are commuting less. 12% fall in season ticket sales last year, and I’m guessing that’s because people are doing less days, so the discount isn’t worth it so much. Also, the rail company’s estimates of how many trips people do has been found to be wrong. They assumed just over 10 trips per week, but it’s something like 8.5. As well as work from home and not travelling into the smoke, the other, perhaps larger effect is companies using… Read more »